Democracy and its discontents

A Facebook friend posted this quote from Asimov and it prompted me to return to some thoughts I have had on democracy since the democratic votes that won the referendum on EU membership for the leavers campaign and Trump won the USA presidential election. Asimov was writing about America but there has been a similar anti-intellectualism in the UK for generations, particularly in England. This has been manifest in a number of ways in the past – the preference for the amateur over the professional (for instance as portrayed in Chariots of Fire), the privileging of commonsense over abstract theory and most recently in Michael Gove’s claim that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. He’s rowed back on this recently and now says he was referring to economists in particular. He said that he wanted people to trust their own judgement rather than listen to experts. But on what are people’s judgements made? Is it on the basis of their own research, their own examination of the evidence, or perhaps just on the evident facts? I think for most of us the first two are unlikely. So we are probably most swayed on the basis of facts as they are presented to us in the media and by politicians and self appointed opinion leaders, amongst them Gove himself of course. At the same time he is encouraging people to trust their own judgement he is of course trying to influence that judgement by encouraging them to ignore experts. One fact offered in the brexit referendum campaign was that we sent the EU £350 million a week and, post brexit, this was pledged to be spent on the NHS. The first is a rather selective fact as it is a gross figure and takes no account of the money that comes back from the EU. In fact the rebate is deducted before anything is sent so in practice only about £55 million goes out. And this takes no account of the significant financial income we get via business, trade, grants etc. by virtue of our membership. As is now becoming increasingly clear in the aftermath of the vote as these less visible returns to us become evident, we get a positive return on our ‘expenditure’ to the EU. As for spending an additional £350 million a week on the NHS, it’s a promise for the future. That the pledge was made is a fact. The promised expenditure, if it happens, lies somewhere in the future.

The Asimov quote claims that the anti-intellectualism rests on the false notion that one individual’s ignorance is as good as another’s knowledge. If this is so, and in theory it is since every vote is equal and has the same influence on the resulting decision, than policy driven by the numerical count of votes alone could be based upon the aggregate ignorance of the people or the aggregate wisdom. Who knows? Obviously I think that my decision to vote to remain was based upon knowledge and, being in possession of that knowledge, I can’t understand why anyone would vote for leaving other than supposing they must lack my knowledge. Why they lack the knowledge is an open question. Lack of reliable information or being exposed to false information? Lack of a general knowledge about what the EU is, how it works and, despite its flaws and problems, how it has and would continue to benefit our economy and security? I think we ‘the people’ have made the wrong choice. But I don’t know for sure. Time may prove that is me and others like me who voted to remain made the wrong choice. The point is that in reality neither the leavers or the remainers know if they have made the right choice. If that is all there is to it, that ‘the people have spoken’ (in fact 37% of the eligible vote which didn’t but arguably should have included 16 and 17 year olds since it is their future we were gambling with) then the executive and legislative wings of our parliamentary system should just implement the policy diktat of the 37%. However, I would have thought the problem with letting the unmediated decisions of multiple ‘men on the Clapham omnibus‘ drive final policy decisions is obvious given the complexity of the law and governance and its necessary dependence on intricate and detailed knowledge. This is what the role of parliament is, not the role of the people. We vote for the people we want to make decisions on our behalf, based on the best knowledge and evidence available, weighing up all the pros and cons and coming to a measured assessment of the nation’s best interest and how best to secure it through legislation and policy. Yes, I know it doesn’t work this way either, but at least we can reverse our electoral decisions periodically and can seek to influence how our masters specify pros and cons and the nation’s best interest. This is why I think parliament should be involved in the over sight and conduct of the brexit negotiations and, through the opportunity of debating and voting on it, be responsible for the final decision.

One very reasonable argument against policy dictated and designed purely by experts and technocrats is that it makes our democratic institutions and processes redundant. They know best so let them get on with it. Rather than elections we should have exams and peer selection. The reason this is a bad idea is that technical expertise on achieving given ends very often has nothing to say about what the ends should be. This discussion requires not just instrumental knowledge but a morally engaged wisdom. In any decision there will be unintended consequences, winners and losers, collateral damages of various sorts, medium and long term consequences that may make implementing today’s good idea into a massive shot in the foot. But if this is a flaw and danger in technocratic rule then equally is it a flaw and danger of populist rule. If all we need to do is implement unquestioningly the decisions of ‘the people’ as expressed in referendums, why would we need parliament in its current form and the democratic process as we currently understand it? Democratic procedure would be reduced to mere opinion polls and politics to the unquestioning and unmediated implementation of opinions thus expressed. On the one hand we have the dictatorship of the technocrats and on the other hand the dictatorship of the masses as orchestrated by undemocratic opinion leaders and demagogues.  It is negotiating a course through these two extremes that is the essential role of parliament and our democratic system however imperfect. Heaven knows, there are serious problems with our party political and parliamentary system and what passes for democracy but collectively these are still immeasurably better than either a dictatorship of the technocrats or of the the masses as ventiloquised by mass media and political demagogues.


Growth versus health?

A man tows his newly acquired pig in Guantánamo, Cuba. Between 1991-95 the Cuban government imported 1.5m bicycles because of petrol shortage. Photograph: Ramon Espinosa/AP

The fact that there seems to be either no correlation between growth (measured as GDP) and well-being or even a negative one seems to have been well established. Two I have read recently that make this claim are Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet and Rob Dietz’s and Dan O’Neill’s Enough Is Enough: Building A Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources.  I read an interesting article in the Guardian a few weeks ago that offers some evidence for a part of this claim – Hard times behind fall in heart disease and diabetes in 90s Cuba, says study.

The hard times experienced by the people of Cuba in the early 1990s – when food was short and petrol almost unobtainable owing to the tightening of the US embargo and loss of Russian support – led to falling rates of heart disease and diabetes, say doctors.

Between 1991 and 1995 the research team found that the population lost an average of 5.5kg (12lb) in weight during the economic crisis after the Russians stopped economic support. This had a significant impact on health, cutting deaths from diabetes by half and from coronary heart disease by a third. However, after 1996 when the economy began to recover the levels of cycling and walking dropped, calorific intake increased and by 2000 the health benefits had been reversed. One of the key conclusions of the study for governments is that “transportation policies are fundamental – therefore we should encourage walking and bicycling as means of transportation”. The other key factor was a reduction in calorific intake and an improvement in the nutritional value of the diet.  The following video explains the study and outlines its conclusions.

Full report: Population-wide weight loss and regain in relation to diabetes burden and cardiovascular mortality in Cuba 1980-2010: repeated cross sectional surveys and ecological comparison of secular trends BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 9 April 2013)

Other reports on this news item:–and-preventable-deaths-are-halved-8566603.html

This is the TED talk given by Tim Jackson based on his book  Prosperity Without Growth

‎”This is a strange rather perverse story. Let me put it this way in very simple terms. It’s a story about us people, being persuaded to spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need to create impressions that won’t last on people we don’t care about”. – Tim Jackson

Feeding the world

Last Saturday I went to the Not the G8 1 day conference at Leeds Uni run by the World Development Movement. The day was roughly scheduled to coincide with this year’s G8 summit to be held on the 17th and 18th June in Northern Ireland.  As one of several pre-summit events, on the 8th June Cameron hosted a G8 Nutrition for Growth: Beating Hunger through Business and Science. The first speaker at the Not The G8 event, Raj Patel, used Cameron’s speech to illustrate and critique the sort of policy being promoted as “Diet Coke Plus” Politics. The general thrust of the G8 event was to decouple problems of nutrition from poverty and promote technocratic big business and market based food programmes. The World Development Movement has been pointing out the often disastrous limitations of this approach and organising actions against it for many years. This is an area which interests me a great deal and I would like to follow up on some of the ideas, practices and policies set out at the conference. This post is just a note and a record of a couple of resources I will be looking at. One is the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development report from 2008 that demonstrates that a corporate business as usual model of agricultural development will not solve problems of poverty, food security for billions of people or malnutrition and in any case it is environmentally unsustainable. This has had an ambivalent reception from many western governments. The other report is the Global Food; Waste Not, Want Not report published in January 2013 by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. This makes the claim that up to 50% of food produced to feed us does not reach human stomachs. The current world population is just over 7 billion and is forecast, according to the UN, to increase to between 8 and 10 billion by 2050. One authoritative model predicts that the world population will reach a maximum round about 2050 and thereafter remain fairly steady or even decline. Either way, if no food, at current levels of production, was wasted we already produce enough to feed 14 billion. In fact, as the UN reports, we are currently producing more calories of food per head of the world population than ever before, more than enough for each individual. The problem of malnutrition is clearly one of waste and distribution rather than production.  But there is a lot more at stake when critiquing current dominant food policies – politically, culturally and ethically.


Risk and uncertainty

Reading John Lanchester’s Whoops! about the crash of 2007  I came across a passage where he makes the distinction between risk (something that can be quantified, it is fondly imagined, and popped into a calculation of probabilities) and uncertainty; “the more profound unknowablilities of life and history”.

You can manage risk, in the sense that you can calculate probabilities and allow for them, but you can’t really manage uncertainty, not in that precise calculable way.  Confuse risk with uncertainty, and you have made a tank-trap for yourself (p42 paperback edition).

One important observation here is that, in principle, risk, because it can have a probability associated with it,  can be insured against even if the premium is more than you wish to pay, for instance young male recently qualified drivers and hot hatches. The problem arises when the risk is in reality an uncertainty and the probability calculation and the premium based on it are meaningless. Consider Credit Default Swaps (CDS). These are insurances against defaulting debtors, for instance a package of mortgage debts sold as an investment, often a complex mixture of high grade and sub-prime. These investment products can have default risks calculated and rated by Rating Agencies that act as a guide to what are safe investments and the likelihood of default. AAA is good, for instance: “An obligor has EXTREMELY STRONG capacity to meet its financial commitments”. How they calculate default probabilities and assign a rating is rather a dark art and, in practice, it looks as if they don’t really bother over much. However, investors in these packaged products assume that the ratings are arrived at on the basis of risk assessment and the willingness of others to issue insurances on them, at a premium, is also based upon risk assessment. In the case of AAA rated investment products based on mortgage debts (or even investment products that included CDSs!) the calculation of risks was blown out of the water by the consequences of uncertainties.

So, what if the calculation of risk is only achieved by ignoring uncertainties that cannot be quantified (especially if they are unknown in the Rumsfeldian sense of unknown unknowns)? Excluding unavoidable uncertaintie (in the real world at least)  does not exclude uncertainty from their calculation of risk; it merely disguises and misnames it. Risk is incalculable uncertainty constructed and named ‘risk’ on the basis of a theory that ignores the reality of uncertainty. This has led to things happening in the real world that economics theory says are impossible. And plenty of others it cannot explain.  Economic theory, demonstrably, does not solve the problem of uncertainty by defining aspects of it, theoretically, as risk in order to quantify it and factor it into their equations.

Of course, the study of non quantifiable uncertainties is pretty well what sociology is all about. And there are ways of dealing with it strategically. But not by constructing mathematised utopias of unisolatable aspects of complex social processes.

There is reference to the role of uncertainty and economics in an earlier post that has some relevant content to this issue:

Economics as capitalist science

On Monday 6th February I went to the first in a series of introductory lectures and discussions on economics, Crashing Through Capital: An Introduction to Economics, hosted by The Really Open University at the Space Project. The lecture was given by David Harvie, an economist at the University of Leicester. This post summarises some of the key points and issues as they struck me, so it will not be a detailed transcript of the lecture or the Q&As. A recording of the lecture was made and hopefully this will be made available on-line in due course. If so, I’ll link from here. David has given permission for his slides to be attached to this post – Economists and Commoners (slides).

David opened the lecture by questioning if it was necessary or useful for us, as lay people and activists, to learn about economics. He made it quite clear very early on that establishment economics, which he referred to as a capitalist science, is highly problematic and in some particulars simply wrong. None-the-less we need to know about it so as not to be deceived by it. As, metaphorically speaking, economics functions as a sort of handbook for capitalism, we need to study it in order to ‘know the enemy’.

He made a distinction between two approaches to economics as a discipline – the positive versus the normative. The positive view sees economics as a science that reports on the way the economy works. It claims to be a neutral account, just like any other science, that simply tells us the way it is with no value assumptions or axes to grind. Opposed to this is the view that economics should be normative. It should be based upon and express values. It should be concerned with value judgements about how economies should work, the way society should be. It is clear that the positive view and its assumption of value freedom are highly problematic. David drew our attention to this but did not elaborate. Sufficient to say that the claim that science is value free and simply produces objective models of reality has long been discredited. There is no such thing as a value free science and therefore no such thing as a value free economics. Positive economics that claims to be value free is in fact shaped by values whether its practitioners and advocates realise it or not. In practice these unacknowledged values are based on some underlying assumptions including that capitalist economies are in some way natural.

David introduces another perspective on economics that he favours. Economics is performative. Economics doesn’t just describe the world; it is the basis of policy and action and is instrumental in shaping society and producing aspects of its reality. This is why he is ambivalent about just claiming establishment economics is wrong. It is certainly demonstrably wrong in some of its assumptions about society, human nature and so on. But there is some sense in which it is correct simply because the world it describes has been partly produced according to its theories and models. It studies and describes phenomenon that to some extent have been produced and made real according to its dictates and templates. It is correct in much the same way that a plan (say of a road system) becomes a map once the plan has been carried out and there is a reality that corresponds to the plan. There is a long tradition for this sort of thinking. I immediately thought of W. I. Thomas (1863-1947), the American sociologists whose famous theorem was “if men (sic) define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”. Today readers may be more familiar with something like Foucault’s ‘regimes of truth’ perhaps.

We then had a brief tour of historically influential economists that still shape economics today, starting with Adam Smith (1723-1790) and his seminal work The Wealth of Nations. Smith is the founder of political economy, the forerunner of modern economics. Using a series of quotations David established three basic tenets of economics that still inform the discipline today – individuals are selfish, they have a natural propensity to truck and barter, and therefore markets are natural. In addition, when individuals seek their own advantage (as they do naturally due to their inherent selfishness) the cumulative consequence of this benefits the whole of society as if guided by an invisible hand. (Once someone mentions ‘unintended consequences’ my sociological antennae begin to quiver. One description of sociology is the study of the unintended consequences of human behaviour). These assumptions are still alive and well (or ill) in modern economic theory – markets are natural and are the most efficient allocator of goods, the trickledown effect, human beings are naturally rational economic actors (homo economicus), and so on. David appeals to a variety of writers and anthropological evidence to call these assumptions into question and asserts that in practice there is virtually no empirical, historical or anthropological evidence to support any of them. For instance there is virtually no evidence that markets in the truck and barter sense existed prior to capitalism. What economics assumes is natural about today’s economy is actually produced by capitalism and the capitalist state. David referred to the work of David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. But despite some of his assumptions being incorrect, Smith’s account of the economy was not wrong in any simple way. He described what he saw and offered an explanation for it but in doing so helped to shape the processes he was describing. In this sense his economics was performative. His ideas helped create markets that had not existed earlier and in his own time were highly contested, for instance the food riots where people wanted to pay what they saw as the moral, fair, price rather than what the merchant could get by keeping the produce and taking it to market. The food was taken and sold at the fair price, the money taken being returned to the merchant. This account was taken from E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1961) and a later essay, The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century (1971).

One of the most original and influential insights Adam Smith had was the centrality of human labour to the production of wealth. Before him wealth was seen as arising from the land and agriculture (the Physiocrats) or from minerals like gold and silver (the Mercantilists). He recognised that wealth was produced by human labour but couldn’t explain how it was produced; where profit came from. The answer to this riddle was provided by Karl Marx. At this point David gave a brief explanation of Marx’s theory of value (value basically means profit). In summary, the labourer sells his capacity to work to the capitalist employer for a specified working day. The time it takes to produce the value that covers his wage is, say, four hours. This means that in a twelve hour day (not uncommon then), for the remaining eight hours the value of goods produced goes entirely to the owner. The owner can increase profits in a number of ways. One is to extend the length of the working day so the worker works more hours producing profit beyond his or her wages. Another method is to shorten the number of hours it takes for the worker to create the value of his wages. This latter strategy can be accomplished by either making the labourer work harder and faster or by making the worker more efficient, perhaps by reorganising the work or introducing new tools or technology. Of course both can happen – the lengthening of the working day and the improvement of the workers’ productivity. In practice, as the position of workers has become more powerful (for a number of reasons including collective organisation) the working day has tended to shorten but profits have been increased by increasing productivity – the intensification of labour. But it is the production of value over and above the wages paid that is the source of profit. Of course it is more complicated than this, for instance profit is increasingly made from rent rather than directly from human productive labour, for instance software licenses and other intellectual assets. But it is still the case that the majority of wealth is created ultimately by paying workers less than the value of their work. In this sense the the capitalist labour relation is essentially exploitative, however benignly you care to interpret that term.

Maynard Keynes partyingIn contrast to this we were then introduced to John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), quite a party animal according to David.  Keynes, although radical in his approach to economics with his analysis of the demand side of the economy and the economic role of the state, was by no means anti-capitalist. David illustrated Keynes position with a number of apposite quotations. Keynes was more realistic about how the economy works, recognising that to some extent markets have to be produced and enabled by supporting the conditions for consumer demand. There is no point in capitalist enterprise producing more and cheaper goods if they stay in the warehouses for want of buyers. In the early days of capitalist production the wages of the labouring classes were rarely much above subsistence, if that. Most manufactured goods were sold to relatively wealthy customers. But as production increased the working classes gradually became important as consumers as well as producers. The tendency had been to drive wages down to increase profits but once profits also depended on the purchasing power of the workers in expanding markets the capitalist was faced with something of a contradiction – two drivers of capitalist development that seemed to pull in opposite directions. To some extent the welfare state, inspired in part by Keynes’ argument that the State had a role in supporting the demand for goods, offered a solution to this dilemma by promoting consumption by state expenditure, effectively putting money into the economy and people’s pockets. The freeing and encouragement of debt has had a similar function in recent decades. So like the previous orthodox economics, Keynes’ theory was a theory of the capitalist economy but one that recognised how the modern economy worked in the early 20th century rather than based upon an idealised version of how it worked in the late 18th century. And like previous economics it was performative in that it shaped the reality it described via government policy. Economics is performative in the sense that it is prescriptive as well as descriptive.

However, despite Keynesian economics achieving near orthodoxy in the post WWII era of reconstruction and development, it was largely defeated in the 1970s with the return of something like the positive economics based on the ideas of Adam Smith. There are a number of complex reasons for this including a world recession, globalisation and so on but these were not covered in this lecture. The current performative economics is now represented by the neo-liberal and Nobel Prize winning economist Gary Becker whose acceptance speech was published as Human Capital (subtitled A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis, with Special Reference to Education). David suggested we might like to read this as a paradigmatic example of current neoliberal economic thinking.

I thoroughly enjoyed the lecture and found it thought provoking. It left me with a number of questions. David implied (although didn’t say) that the improving share of wealth the working class achieved over the best part of 300 years was due largely to their increasing power and resistance through organisation and collective action. Also, by implication, he suggested that the dramatic fall in that share since the mid 1970s is largely due to the weakening of working class power. Undoubtedly this is of central importance but the rise and fall of the fate of the working classes, including the managerial and administrative classes, is tied to a number of systemic features of a now global capitalist economy that I think we may be addressing in future meetings for this course. My other main reflection is that the lecture and presumably future lectures focus on and study economics as a performative discipline. However, what emerges from this first lecture is the notion that the concept ‘economy’ as used in economics is an abstraction from a social reality where ‘the economic’ does not exist as an isolated separate sphere of behaviour or social process. A critical stance towards economics as a discipline exposes its ideological and partial (and historically contingent) nature and therefore demonstrates the necessity to go beyond the bounds of orthodox economics to make sense of living and working in late modernity. I guess this is what a sociologist would say.

I have reconstructed this account from my near unreadable notes. I would be very happy if anyone else at the lecture wants to take issue with any of this or add anything I’ve missed. Please leave a comment.


For a more detailed account of the way capitalism accumulates value, its impact on the division of labour today and some of the political consequences, in his view, you might find Zizek’s recent article in the London Review of Books interesting . The Revolt of the Salaried Bourgeoisie is a short post here and a link to the original article.

I was very interested in what David had to say about the notion of a moral economy. I found the following article about E. P. Thompson’s ideas on this – Moral Economy as an historical social concept.

An interesting paper by Ben Fine (who David referred to as a Marxist economist and a critic of Gary Becker’s neoliberal fundamentalism)  that outlines Fine’s view of modern classical economics, its exclusion of society and even an understanding of its own history, its assumptions and narrow focus, etc. is Economics Imperialism and Intellectual Progress: The Present as History of Economic Thought?

Prosperity without growth’m currently reading Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet, now a book published by Earthscan but started as a report for the now defunct Sustainable Development Commission where the original report can still be downloaded, Prosperity without Growth? – The transition to a sustainable economy.

I haven’t finished the book yet but it is very interesting. It grapples with the logic of capitalism, consumerism and the deeply flawed economics that assumes growth and measures it in GDP.  The two things I think are not covered in the book that I think are central to the discussion of the social logic of consumption are the role of marketing and advertising and the extent that consumerism creates dependencies through bot deskilling and the destructions of aspects of social life that were to some extent at least relatively independent of cash relations and the consumption of consumer goods. These are to some extent the ‘cracks’ in capitalism and the rule of money that John Holloway writes about some of which are the revitalising of older forms of sociality and doing things together for one self and others. Cooking meals rather than consuming ready meals would be but one  small example. We have a lifestyle of rushing and time pressures that, combined with the loss of the knowledge, habits and routines of cooking and communal  eating, creates a market for consumer goods that are not quite the positional ans status consumption Jackson speaks of. The main point is, I think, that consumerism does not only depend on status, identity and telling each other social narratives based on the symbolic language of possessions and aspects of lifestyle and the forms of inclusion and exclusion these imply. Consumerism also creates forms of dependency based upon the destruction of relatively autonomous aspect of life that existed outside the cash and commodity nexus and by a range of forms of de-skilling. Jackson seems to have bought into the idea that human beings are essentially constituted to be novelty seekers. I am more inclined to think that this is a potential and propensity that is an emergent property of the development of consciousness, symbolic language and detachment (in Norbert Elias’s conception of the term) and is therefore something that can be developed and ‘naturalised’ by social and ideological processes rather than seen as constitutive of human nature. If this is the case humanity’s endless seeking for novelty may not be another nail in the coffin of imagining and working towards a better sort of society and way of life.

Tim Jackson also based his Ted Talk on the book

Or at the Ted Talk web site

What do we want? What is possible?

The right leaning media have been criticising the occupation at St Paul’s  in London for not being able to specify an alternative to the system they are against and, specifically, that their demands are poorly and inconsistently articulated. One possible response to this is that their objective is to keep the focus on the issues around the bankers’ responsibility for the economic collapse and the apparent immunity of the top 1% and their hangers-on and immediate collaborators to the consequences of their actions while the remaining 99% are bearing the financial and ideological brunt.  The occupiers’ actions provide a rallying point for discussion and further action and is drawing in ever larger numbers and organisations. The TUs are getting involved and there is even the possibility that Christians will form a defensive ring of prayer around the occupation to shield it from violent eviction!  The movement may not yet have a coherent set of ideas about an alternative society and how to get there but it is at the very least enabling and encouraging a space of dissent and resistance that leaves open a range of possibilities.

None-the-less, that discussion will sooner or later have to coalesce into a reasonably concrete vision of objectives and how to achieve them, in practice. It is difficult to over emphasise the considerable obstacles to doing this. I am currently working on some ideas about how to think about this and what the practical and political possibilities are. For the moment I will just list the conceptual resources I am starting to work with, in no particular order.

John Holloway’s ideas on Crack Capitalism and the possibilities for developing alternative modes of behaviour and ways of doing that resist reproducing the social relations of capital. Part of what I am doing is building on a critique of these ideas.

Zygmunt Bauman’s take on ‘liquid modernity’, the fact of irreducable uncertainty and what the role of sociology and socilogists should be.  This relates directly to his ideas on freedom ‘from’ and freedom ‘to’ and the possibilities of going beyond the naturalisation of the current system and promoting a dialogue, even a poly-logue, that makes thinking about and enabling alternatives that are emancipatory.

Slavoj Zizek’s view of what is possible as laid out in the Afterword –  Welcome to Interesting Times – of the paperback edition of Living in the End Times.

Norbert Elias’s ontology of ‘levels of integration’ and how, in a social developmental context, this creates increasingly far flung and dense networks of dependency and interdependency that help explain the relative lack of opportunity and power chances at the lower levels of integration (limited in autonomy, opportunity and mobility) and the relative autonomy and immunity of the higher levels of integration including, in Baumans’ terms, the free floating, trans-state and seemingly immune highly mobile global elites. It is difficult to see how much progress can be made towards a radical restructuring of society without taking these far flung networks of dependency into account.

I think to way forward for me will to be to produce a summary and critique of these thinkers ideas and then see to what extent some sort of synthesis may be of possible that is conceptually, empirically and politically useful. Maybe this is a project that could be conducted collaboratively in some way – perhaps via presentations, discussion and workshops in the sorts of spaces for resistance that are opening up?


Global capitalism and 21st century fascism

Into extract:
The crisis of global capitalism is unprecedented, given its magnitude, its global reach, the extent of ecological degradation and social deterioration, and the scale of the means of violence. We truly face a crisis of humanity. The stakes have never been higher; our very survival is at risk. We have entered into a period of great upheavals and uncertainties, of momentous changes, fraught with dangers – if also opportunities.

I want to discuss here the crisis of global capitalism and the notion of distinct political responses to the crisis, with a focus on the far-right response and the danger of what I refer to as 21st century fascism, particularly in the United States.

Facing the crisis calls for an analysis of the capitalist system, which has undergone restructuring and transformation in recent decades. The current moment involves a qualitatively new transnational or global phase of world capitalism that can be traced back to the 1970s, and is characterised by the rise of truly transnational capital and a transnational capitalist class, or TCC. Transnational capital has been able to break free of nation-state constraints to accumulation beyond the previous epoch, and with it, to shift the correlation of class and social forces worldwide sharply in its favour – and to undercut the strength of popular and working class movements around the world, in the wake of the global rebellions of the 1960s and the 1970s.

Companies as legal ‘persons’ and the personification of capital

Heads of cabbage and mouths full of water by Mark Neocleous.  Radical Philosophy Nov/Dec 2003

“The law which shaped the modern corporation as a new form of legal person has been reluctant to admit that the same persons can commit illegal acts and recognizable harms. The law, in other words, has been structured in a way that is far more accommodating to corporate subjects than to human ones. In this way the ruling class has more or less defined capital as beyond incrimination: the ‘harms’ committed by corporations are treated as the result of a failure to follow regulations and procedures and thus are not ‘crimes’ in the way that laypersons might think. Apropos of right-wing attacks on ‘welfare scroungers’ and ‘the idle poor’, one might say that it is the corporation that has acquired plenty of rights but few responsibilities. Capital has used the corporate form to its advantage by avoiding some of the most obvious disadvantages of being a legal subject, namely responsibility for one’s acts”.

Law and Critique 14: 147–165, 2003. © 2003 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.

“The law which granted the modern corporation fully-fledged status as a juridical person has been reluctant to admit that the same persons can commit illegal acts and recognisable harms; the corporation is a person when it comes to the advantages of law, but a ‘nonperson’ when it comes to crimes seemingly committed by it. The individualizing nature of bourgeois law constructs the corporation as a person but then resists punishing it on the grounds that it is not a person at all but a collective which has no mind per se. The state personalizes capital, but doesn’t punish it as a person. It punishes it (when it does) as capital – as something different to (human) persons. A propos of attacks on ‘welfare scroungers’ and ‘the idle poor’, one might say that it is the corporation that has acquired plenty of rights but few responsibilities. In Marxist terms we might say that the unity of the corporate persona created by the state has helped consolidate the  domination of capital over everyday life. Capital has used the corporate form to its advantage by avoiding some of the most obvious disadvantages of being a legal person, namely responsibility for one’s acts. The outcome has been the tendency to treat ‘crimes’ committed by corporations as mere failure to follow regulations and procedures and thus not ‘crime’ at all: the ruling class has defined capital as beyond incrimination. But then this should not surprise us: as with bourgeois law in general, the corporation is, after all, constituted as a person for purposes of capital accumulation and not for the purposes of justice.

There is a tendency among writers on ‘corporate crime’ to argue that “while . . . the charge of corporate manslaughter remains a highly difficult one to pursue successfully, there are no insuperable problems intrinsic to law to the effective criminalisation of such offences; . . . what is commonly lacking is political will”. Maybe so; but the implication of my argument is that any such ‘political will’ would have to be rooted not in the current structures through which mainstream politics is organized – political parties and reformist groups – but in a movement that would be willing to challenge the whole edifice on which political and social power is structured – the state and the individualizing tendencies of bourgeois law as well as capital itself. Moreover, any such challenge would have to take on board the fact that capital uses the persona in bourgeois law as the veil of its power”.

Both articles via Joss Winn

Troubles ahead for world economy

Troubles ahead for world economy the 7.30 Report. Transcript of interview with Joseph Stiglitz.

Joseph Stiglitz is a Nobel laureate, a former chief economist of the World Bank and he chaired Bill Clinton’s presidential council of economic advisors.  His latest book, ‘Freefall’, is a worrying critique of the root causes of the Global Financial Crisis, and despite President Obama’s recent banking reforms, he says it could happen again. He’s also predicting another US economic slowdown. The veteran economist is on a lecture tour in Australia and I spoke with him in Brisbane today.

Joseph Stiglitz, if we can start with an up-to-date appraisal of the US economy: what is the state of the economy right now?

JOSEPH STIGLITZ, GLOBAL ECONOMIST: In a single word, weak, ah, and probably going to get weaker.